On July 5, The Nation published a poem called “How-To” by Anders Carlson-Wee, a young white man. It describes how panhandlers, the homeless, and others asking for money should behave. That behavior, as you can see in the poem, involves using tactics designed to pry money out of people who are reluctant to give some spare change. The argot used by the poet is that of some black people, although others say simply “Southerners.” Read it for yourself (click on screenshots to go to the poem and apology page):
The Torrington Register Citizen in Connecticut notes :
The poem offers advice to presumably homeless panhandlers on the best way to pry cash from passersby, including this line: “If you’re crippled don’t /
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough / Christians to notice.”
Throughout the poem, the narrator also adopts an ungrammatical vernacular that many readers found equally troubling: “Don’t say homeless, they know / you is.”
Those on social media actually found two problems with the poem. First is its “ableism”, which doesn’t bother me so much as it’s about homeless and disabled people asking for money, and that’s simply a fact of life. The other parts, about how to get more money out of passersby, may be imagined, but there are surely tactics that panhandlers and the disabled use that have brought them more money. Having a nearby animal as your pet helps, as does displaying one’s handicap and so on. And surely some of these tactics have been passed among the disabled and homeless. I have no issue with this, though I’m not sure “How-To” constitutes “poetry” in my book, as it lacks meter, imaginative images or interesting language. That’s a matter of taste. Nevertheless, The Nation considered it poetry and published it.
The second issue is the use of language: black argot like “You hardly even there” or “they know you is”, which, I suppose would be okay if the poet was black but was deemed cultural appropriation because he was white. That could seem a bit more problematic, but then there are people who speak this way, and the use of other people’s English has been part of literature for a long time, including in “Huckleberry Finn” and “A Passage to India.” On balance, I don’t find the poem problematic.
But many people did, and let The Nation know on social media, considering the poem not only ableist but racist. A few examples:
hey @thenation, you recently
published a ridiculously offensive
poem ‘how-to’ by anders carlson-wee that flattened & appropriated
identities already rendered invisible.
aave isn’t a costume. here is my
response. do better (original
poem on the left. response, right) pic.twitter.com/6LNCEG8xtg
— donte collins 🌻 (@donte_thepoet) July 24, 2018
yo fam. I'm trying to understand the voice in this poem. It feels offensive to me and like it's trafficking inappropriately in Black language but is there something i'm missing? Help me understand.
— Nate Marshall (@illuminatemics) July 24, 2018
After I wrote the above, I asked Grania for her take on the poem, and she gave me permission to quote her view:
From what I can see the poem is about how to claw back some semblance of power while in a position of submission or powerlessness, which is an interesting concept. The narrative voice is describing their fictional self and their own actions and acting. It’s got nothing to do with “othering” or “belittling” communities, and anyone claiming to be hurt or injured after reading the poem needs a big sign tattooed backwards on their forehead so that every time they look in the mirror they can read the words:IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT YOU
I suppose the editors should have been prepared by this kind of social media pushback, but instead of defending their right to publish what they wanted, they issued an apology almost unparalleled in its groveling. Their admission, for example, that the poem is “ableist” is not supportable: the poem is about being disabled and having to ask for money. As for having caused “harm to several communities”, the harm is only to feelings (n.b. “the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem.”). But the poem will damage no minority group. And the editors now feel that they have to earn the readers’ trust back, when in fact some readers defended the poem’s publication and criticized this apology.
This kind of groveling and truckling to the mob is, to me, absolutely contemptible:
The poem had its defenders, and the Nation its critics for apologizing:
The apology is longer than the poem. https://t.co/odQjdaS7qk
— reason (@reason) August 1, 2018
and from philosopher Jeremy Stangroom:
I understand why people do it… but really don't bloody apologize to a mob. You just enable and embolden future mobs. Best thing is to tell the mob to go fuck itself. https://t.co/RfnlqwElf2
— Jeremy Stangroom (@PhilosophyExp) July 31, 2018
There’s a good case to be made that The Nation should have followed Stangroom’s advice.
Nevertheless, the poet apologized on Twitter:
According to Page Six, the poet’s apology didn’t still the critics, who piled on even more, calling Carlson-Wee’s use of the phrase “eye-opening” ableist as well. And according to the tweeter below, the apology didn’t go far enough (Carlson-Wee donated his fee to charity). There is nothing he can do now, for he has been cast into the pit of perdition, and this will follow Carlson-Wee forever. As a poet, he’s toast.
your poem is also ableist & problematic in regards to HIV+ status & so there is more to say than just "oops, sorry I was racist." the harm you caused is multi-faceted.
& we note your use of "eye-opening," we note ableism inherent in (your) language.
— Disabled & Deaf Uprising (@DisDeafUprising) July 26, 2018
This is now what’s happening in America (and Canada and the UK): the thought police, screaming on social media, are baying for people’s jobs and reputations because their words don’t conform to what critics see as the ideologically correct position. Literature is especially vulnerable since it’s imaginative and doesn’t always deal with the writer’s sex, ethnicity, or race.
If those who oppose the thought police remain silent, the Pecksniffs will win by default, so it’s up to us to criticize this kind of censorship and apologetics whenever we can.